The Pandemic Sublime

Written by

László Munteán


Now that staying home has become the new norm, the bulk of my contact with the outside world is channeled through the screen and the microphone of my laptop. Within the confines of the home, the Internet remains an umbilical cord to information, social life, and entertainment. Overwhelmed, frustrated, and at once obsessed with the visual culture of the pandemic burgeoning online, I am intrigued by the proliferation of drone videos featuring cities under lockdown, featuring (in alphabetical
order) Boston, Budapest, Chicago, Istanbul, Mumbai, New York, Sao Paolo, Rio de Janeiro, and San Francisco. The most recent one is a 48-mintue superbly edited footage of New York augmented by a moving soundtrack resembling cinematic establishing shots. There are many more out there and presumably even more to come in the near future. Regardless of the differences among these cities, the videos share an aesthetic repertoire, which employs soothingly uplifting music as an atmospheric background to panoramic views of empty streets forming embroidery patterns on a gigantic carpet unfolding without end. Viewers, including myself, are
mesmerized, as evidenced by the acclaim they receive on YouTube.

There is, however, nothing new about their aesthetic repertoire. The increasing affordability and ubiquity of ever more sophisticated personal drones had yielded a plethora of similar videos long before COVID-19. From the drone’s bird’s eye perspective, humans and traffic are rendered almost invisible, allowing the city to emerge as an artificial landscape dazzling in its variety of detail and at once fathomable from above. These drone videos celebrate cities in terms of what David Nye calls the ‘technological sublime’. Updating earlier conceptualizations of the sublime, Nye traces its manifestations in such emblems of American modernity as skyscrapers, railroads, bridges. As an example of the technological sublime, Nye also mentions Consolidated Edison’s City of Lights diorama of New York, which, at the 1939 World Fair, was the largest in the world. Similarly, urban drone videos also turn cities into a sublime artifact, human-made and at once beyond human scale, overwhelming and at once uplifting to survey from above.

The drone videos of cities besieged by the pandemic add a poignant edge to the technological sublime. The overwhelming sight of the modern city, which translates Kant’s dynamical and mathematical sublime into Babel-like visions of technological wonder, is here compromised by the invisible but overwhelming presence of the virus. The drone’s elevated perspective, otherwise enacting the Kantian transcendence of reason as key to the experience of the sublime, gestures to the technological sublime as a
nostalgic memory in the midst of angst and loss. Being at a safe remove from the threatening object, which Burke sees as indispensable for the experience of the sublime, is likewise illusory, uncannily recalling measures of social distancing, which has left streets vacant.

This is not to say, however, that the videos’ depressing context undermines the pleasure of viewing them. Quite the contrary, they cater to the kind of pleasure generally ascribed to the apocalyptic or post-apocalyptic imaginaries. Cinematic destructions of American metropolises in countless Hollywood blockbusters or the abandoned New York of I Am Legend (2007) all celebrate the greatness and beauty of these cities by way of fantasizing about their decay. Projected into the distant future, these (post-)apocalyptic imaginaries mobilize the technological sublime in an inverse fashion, generating a nostalgia for the present. But the cities under lockdown are neither ruined nor abandoned. The disaster at stake is no fantasy, it is not awesome but awful. If there is a ruin to be seen through the drones’ eyes, it is that of the liveliness of public space. What unfolds in front of our eyes is a diorama-city with a few ghostly passersby: distressing and yet stunningly beautiful. If these videos bring anything new, they do so by mapping a familiar aesthetic onto a new urban reality, eliciting the experience of a pandemic sublime.

The pandemic sublime taps into the daunting reality of the lockdown but it does so in a way that allows the city, captured in the vocabulary of the technological sublime, to take the upper hand. The sense of pleasure to be felt is not guaranteed by any spatial or temporal distance because the viewer, no matter where he or she watches these videos, remains at risk. Instead, the drone’s eye caters to the desire to leave the limits of the home, while the sight of abandoned streets foster a sense of togetherness in isolation. The pandemic sublime locates the source of threat in the unfathomable proportions of the pandemic and mobilizes the aerial view to
celebrate the city as a metonym for its inhabitants confined to their homes,
that is, those lucky enough to have homes to stay in, jobs to work at from a
distance, the technology to watch these videos, and the health to carry on.

Pandemics as performance art: Walking under a corona-regime

Written by Anna P. H. Geurts


Mike Norton,
photo of Richard Long’s Full Moon Circle, Houghton Hall, 2016
(Wikimedia Commons).

Right now, West Europeans and North Americans have their mobility taken away from them at a scale probably not experienced since World War Two. Travelling to a neighbouring country, commuting to work, going to parties, meeting lovers… for the privileged among them* – for the privileged among us, I should say, these things are usually so self-evident that they receive very little thought (until we fall ill, perhaps).

Now, under the corona-regimes put in place everywhere in the world, ‘even’ we must accept severe limitations, limitations that may be especially hard to adhere to since it is so easy, with all our money, our health, our infrastructures, our passports and our safety, to overstep them. We cannot feel our limitations; we must think them, reason them; convince ourselves that we must stick to our self-imposed rules.

And while we are fighting ourselves, we also fight others: we cast suspicious glances at people walking too closely, people who cough, people without gloves on. These people do not only Spread the Virus and Kill the Elderly, they are also to blame for keeping us imprisoned in our homes for longer than strictly necessary. And finally, what we also feel about them is perhaps best characterised as envy: envy of their obliviousness to this Situation. Envy that they forgot to worry for a moment, and we did not.

This enduring feeling of always watching one’s step, of never letting go and going where one wants, reminded me of a work of art I saw many years ago. It’s by Richard Long, a land artist and performance artist.

I did not actually take a photo of the work of art itself. I just took a photo of the interpretive sign that accompanied it.


Photo by APHG, 2015.

Why did I not take a photo of the artwork itself? Richard Long makes wonderful art. As Wikipedia summarises one of his other artworks, the poetic piece Walking a Circle in Mist resulted in a “circular path approximately 75 feet in diameter”. And, because there is no such thing as coincidence, the “outside of [this] path fades outward creating a
corona-like effect”. You can see it for yourself on Long’s own website.

Wonderful art indeed. But the clue to the real wonder is in the title: ‘Walking a Circle in Mist’. The circle isn’t the art work. The walking is.

This is exactly what the interpretive sign to the work that I saw, many years ago, explained, too: ‘walking as art’; ‘Art about mobility, lightness and freedom.’

I looked up from the sign to see for myself. But the artist’s activity, his interaction with the landscape, in Vermont and New York where he found the slate, and back in the UK where he laid it down, this interaction, which is such an integral part of the work I was supposedly witnessing, was no longer visible.

Yes, its trace was still there: the red slate line which was the result of Long bringing the slate to the UK and positioning it in the Yorkshire Sculpture Park near Wakefield where I saw it. And such traces, too, form part of what Long’s art is about. But I confess I was a little devastated by the interdiction printed at the end of the interpretive sign, an interdiction that forbade all creativity and playfulness:

Strictly no walking on Red Slate Line.

For me, this took away all the fun – while fun, or effort, or suffering, but in any case: doing something(!) is such an integral part of land art and performance art. And with this particular piece of art looking so much like a red-slate version of Dorothy’s yellow-brick road, I could not help but feel invited to walk the Line. Yes, slate is preciously fragile. But isn’t the weathering of land art, and the fragility and unpredictability of  performance art, which is created not in the last place by an audience that is allowed to make her body felt, part of the deal?

I was dumbfounded that the makers of the interpretive sign seemed not to have noticed the irony.

And though I, of course, accepted the restrictions that were being placed upon my movements (‘of course’? Well, being a teacher, I try to set a good example. And I was accompanied by someone who is particularly good at helping me stick to this resolution), although I accepted these restrictions, I could not help but think: why does the artist get all the fun, while the audience only gets to look on? Indeed, I felt very similar to how we privileged people sometimes feel in coronaland. And similar perhaps also to how many people must feel all the time.

This tiny restriction (only a thin red line of slate!) that was being placed on my mobility, in an otherwise completely accessible park, and in a pretty free life, sparked some noticeable frustration.

So, what am I trying to say?

Not just that one of the more positive effects of COVID-19 might be to remind the mobile half of the global population that the other half isn’t mobile (and during a pandemic such as this, it’s the already-not-so-mobile who become even less mobile) – in other words, that the virus will hopefully teach me and people like me a moral lesson about inequality.

I am also trying to say that it might give us some time to think about our own mobility. Like Long’s performances, it might inspire us to approach our own walking, or rolling, or cycling, as a work of art. As play. As a privilege, in the better sense of the word. Something to savour. A wonderful capacity that we have. Something to treat with respect and use well.

COVID-19 gives me, at least, time to think how I most want to use my freedom once I regain it.

Now, what do you miss most?

* You’ll know if you’re not one of them.